Panasonic's AG-HVX200K video camera enables a new age of video production

When, as a part of ZDNet’s effort to turn its journalists into independent video producers as well, the folks in our broadband group sent me a Panasonic AG-HVX200K to play around with, I had no idea how much the camera they were sending me would prove to be a game changer when it comes to commercial video production in a distributed, collaborative environment.
Written by David Berlind, Inactive
When, as a part of ZDNet’s effort to turn its journalists into independent video producers as well, the folks in our broadband group sent me a Panasonic AG-HVX200K to play around with, I had no idea how much the camera they were sending me would prove to be a game changer when it comes to commercial video production in a distributed, collaborative environment. At $6995, it’s a very pricey device compared to other cameras that are far less expensive and that ultimately turn out a final product that’s similar in video quality to the one that might come from the Panasonic AG-HVX200K if the Web is your final target. Mostly for performance reasons, a lot of quality must be stripped out of raw video before it’s published to the Web. 

So, on first blush, this camera’s HiDef video capabilities seem like complete overkill given the fact that quality of the final output is actually below that of the lowest of the three major quality choices that the camera has to offer: DVC25 (basically, standard DV), DVC50, and HD. Most videos that go onto the Web start in a DV format and are downgraded from there. So, it came as no surprise that when the camera arrived at my home office with nothing to do but press the record button, it was already preset to work on its lowest (DVC25) setting.  But for companies and broadcasters looking for ways to strip the fat out of the business process that goes into the scripting, shooting, and post-production of video, the Panasonic AG-HVX200K, has a handful of features not found in other cameras that may make the camera worth its premium price anyway.  And who knows? If one day, you grow into HiDef, this camera can take you there.

Perhaps the most interesting and unique quality of the Panasonic AG-HVX200K is its P2 technology. Unlike other video cameras that record video to tape (which this camera supports), recordable DVDs and CDs, or other portable media, this camera can record directly onto PCMCIA cards (the type that fit into the expansion slots found on most notebook computers). That’s no big deal you say? That’s what I said.  But then, it turned out to be a bigger deal than I realized. 

The primary benefit of recording video onto PCMCIA cards is how quickly you can be working with that video on a notebook computer (or desktop equipped with PCMCIA slots). Pop the card out of the camera, put it into the computer, and with a little help from Panasonic’s special P2 software drivers, you can playback the video that’s on the card. 

This, in fact, was the primary benefit that ZDNet’s broadband group discussed with me before sending the camera my way. They envisioned me in a variety of circumstances (for example, at a trade show) where the easiest and fastest way of getting video out of the camera and then shipping it to our production facilities in San Francisco would be to shoot the video, move the PCMCIA card to my notebook, connect to the Internet, and transfer the files. Like most other cameras, this one has a FireWire connection. But, when transferring video from a camera to a PC via FireWire, you’re tied to the speed of the camera’s tape engine. Also, with all the adapters, cables, and power packs that I bring with me everywhere I go, it’s easy to think you have the right cable when you don’t. And then, with no cable, you’re really in trouble. 

With PCMCIA cards, not only aren’t you tied to the speed of a tape engine, I can transfer the files (via FTP or some other uploading mechanism) directly from the card (which simply turns up as another disk drive on my computer) instead of having to put it on my hard drive first. 

So, right off the bat, there are some major conveniences to be had with the P2 technology that Panasonic features on this camera.  

But wait, there’s more. 

Unlike tapes where you must advance the tape engine to some particular point on the tape when looking for a specific clip (known as “seqential access”), P2-based PCMCIA cards are like hard drives, CDs, and DVDs in that they support “random access.” But the P2 technology takes things a step further. Not only does it support random access (as you’d expect any non-tape storage to support), every time you press the record button, it creates a distinct and separately accessible video clip in the PCMCIA card. 

The benefits of this are many. For starters, through the camera’s user interface (which I found to be usable but clumsy), you can pick any clip and delete it. So, let’s say, much the same way when you can delete a picture you've just taken your digital still-image camera, you shoot a video clip and you realize it’s no good and needs to be re-shot. Through the video camera’s UI, you can just delete it that clip. Just try doing this with tape. Yes, it’s doable. But if speed is of the essence and you don’t have time to find a clip’s beginning and end-point, the P2-way can make you far more productive as a videographer. 

Another key benefit has to do with the XML-based schema that the P2 technology uses to keep the clips on the PCMCIA card organized. Using XML, Panasonic’s P2, as far as I can tell, implements a human readable form of the Material eXchange Format (MXF). In theory MXF is a subset of the Advanced Authoring Format (AAF) that’s designed to grease the wheels of content interoperability (throughout the content creation food chain: from creation [cameras] to post-production gear) at the audio, video, data, and metadata levels. Metadata, as it applies to clips of video, can be particularly useful for packaging those clips with descriptive information that’s helpful to the editors who handle the post-production process. When a cameraman toggles the AG-HVX200K’s record mode off, whatever was last recorded is wrapped in a metadata envelope that includes the “clip’s” name (automatically assigned by the camera), creation date, video format, codec, frame rate, aspect ratio, and size, amongst other data items. It even includes information about the camera that created the clip such as manufacturer, model, and serial number. 

Once a camera like the Panasonic AG-HVX200K starts saving video as clips that are accompanied by descriptive metadata (conforming to an gear-interoperable XML-based schema), all sorts of friction is removed from commercial video production in distributed, collaborative environments. 

For example, once an 8 gig P2 card (which can only hold 32 minutes of DVC25 video) is full of clips (just the good ones since it’s so easy to delete the useless ones), a PC loaded with the P2 drivers can not only decode and display the meta data (as well as playback any clip), it can edit the metadata too. For example, you can rename the clips. 

All of these features have all sorts of implications if you’re someone like me, who is creating video with the camera and shipping it out to a production department for post-production. 

First of all, when taping, I don’t have to worry about segment order. If “scenes” 1, 9, and 12 all take place in the same location, I can save time by taping them back to back (deleting any bad takes along the way). Then, once I have the P2 card in the PC, I just rename them from the camera-assigned clipname to Scene 1, Scene 9, and Scene 12. Then, when I ship the entire package out to our production department, provided their editing gear can decode the metadata, not only can they see how to order the clips, just the fact that the video segments are already broken into clips means that they’re already ready for non-linear editing (a major time saver compared to what happens when the production department gets a tape instead). 

As it turns out, our broadband group here at CNET uses Apple’s Final Cut Pro which is 100 percent compatible with Panasonic’s XML implementation of MXF. So, in our tests, once I got the video out to the West Coast, our editors had no trouble working with it. Since I had deleted all the bad takes, they had almost 100 percent clean video to work with and because all of it was ready for non-linear editing, the turn around time when it came to editing the video and publishing to the Web was only a matter of hours. Eventually, as we practice, we could probably trim even more time off the total end to end process. 

Another reason the P2 architecture can save time is because the camera isn’t needed to move the video to a place (like a hard drive) from where it can be transferred across the Internet. For example, when using tape, either the camera or a specially equipped tape player is needed to transfer the video to a PC. If you have the tape player, which many people don’t (especially when traveling), then taking the tape out of the camera and using the player (and a FireWire interface) to get the video onto a hard drive doesn’t tie up the camera. But most people don’t have that luxury which means any time video has to be moved onto a hard drive, you need the camera to do it which in turn means that if you need the camera to do other video taping, you’ll have to make a choice: do the videotaping or do the file transfer. 

With the P2 technology, none of this is a problem. That’s because of how the PCMCIA cards bypass the FireWire/file transfer part of the process. Instead of tying the camera up for the file transfer process, you just take the PCMCIA card that has the video on it and insert it into the PC that has the P2 drivers loaded on it. While that PC is transferring files to your video production department, your cameraman and talent can be out and about with the AG-HVX200K taping other segments with other cards. 

But wait. It still gets better. 

The AG-HVX200K can hold two cards at a time. When one fills up, it automatically switches to the other and when it does this, not only can you eject the first card while the camera is still recording on the second card, you can replace it with another clean card. The net effect of this is that camera can record continuously for as long as need be provided you have enough cards and a nearby AC power source. While I didn’t benchmark the camera’s battery performance, I was actually surprised by how long its rechargeable battery lasted. In hindsight, I realized that using PCMCIA cards instead of tape means that the camera’s tape engine is off which in turn means it’s not draining life from the battery. Neat! Eh? 

Of course, while the camera has some special features to enable collaboration in a distributed environment, not everything always works out the way you’d like. For example, working here, out of my home office with residential cable modem service, pumping gigabytes of video and audio (the camera actually creates separate files for both) isn’t exactly a walk in the park. If you’re contemplating a similar environment, it might help to check your uplink speed and do some math to see how long it might take to get each gigabyte of content to your production department. I’ve since upgraded my residential service to a commercial service with a much faster uplink speed so as to shorten transfer times. 

Lastly, in addition to this camera’s HD capabilities which we may grow into at some point, this camera has some features that video hacks (of which I’m not one, yet) apparently love. For example, it relies on 3 CCDs (sensors) which means really great video quality (how great? I’m the wrong guy to ask). Also, one comment from one of CNET’s cameraman was how the dynamic auto-white balance was surprisingly fast and accurate which is perfect for a guy like me who doesn’t want to have to think too much before pressing the record button. 

Also, one other point: Although the user manual is horrible at telling you how to use the feature, the camera’s frame rates can easily be adjusted to eliminate flicker when it’s pointed at just about any computer display.

See also: The CNET Reviews team's review of this camera. Be sure to check out the video (on the video tab) to see the P2 card in action.

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